Friday, August 28, 2015

Mistress America: Lunatics in charge

Mistress America (2015) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.28.15

Noah Baumbach’s films are like Off-Broadway plays.

The settings are stage-y, the atmosphere mannered and theatrical; all conversations are forced and confrontational; people rarely speak calmly, instead gesticulating wildly and declaiming to an invisible back row. The dialog is florid and far wittier than anything we’d hear in actual life, the characters at times waiting on each other, in the manner of actors not entirely certain of their cues.

At first blush, life with Brooke (Greta Gerwig, right) is a romantic, big-city lark: the sort of
Manhattan-based adventure that Tracy (Lola Kirke) never expected to experience. But
as time passes, Brooke proves to be less an effervescent role model, and more a
narcissistic train wreck.
We eagerly await each retort, certain it will be particularly clever or scathing.

In the context of a true stage experience, we expect — even admire — such heightened reality. We appreciate the embroidered performances, smile knowingly during verbal duels designed to convey implied or blatant messages, pleased when we “get” the playwright’s intended moral.

Off-Broadway, we’re inclined to forgive the artifice.

In a movie theater, I find it exhausting.

The character played by Greta Gerwig in Mistress America is artificial: a vehicle designed solely to showcase her thespic skills. She sighs, smiles, chatters nervously, flutters about and behaves like a cattle-call actress trying much too hard to impress. Which is, I acknowledge, the nature of her character ... but that’s not a sufficient excuse for performance overkill.

To be sure, Gerwig is fun to watch. She delights and dazzles, even — sometimes particularly — when her character’s behavior slides into wretched excess. But it’s hard to wrap a conventional storyline around such a deliberately flamboyant scene-stealer.

Knowing that Gerwig co-wrote the script, with Baumbach, makes this film a rather blatant vanity project. That Baumbach, as director, so blithely tolerates his leading lady’s excesses, can be attributed to their having been an off-camera item since 2011, while making Frances Ha. (They also worked together on 2010’s Greenberg.)

And I dearly hope they’ve gotten this big-screen Mutual Admiration Society out of their systems.

That said, Mistress America opens well, its first act a credible and painfully accurate indictment of the college scene, as experienced by the disenfranchised. Tracy (Lola Kirke) begins her freshman year at a Manhattan college with expectation and enthusiasm, both of which are smooshed during a brief montage that catalogs every indignity and beat-down endured by those not quite certain of their place in life.

The hostile roommate. The boring and pretentious classes. The ghastly dining commons food. The miasma of quiet desperation that filters through the dorm hallway. The tentative crush who, a few days later, pops up with a new girlfriend.

The loneliness.

The PTSD flashback was almost enough to send me screaming from the theater.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The End of the Tour: Authors in crisis

The End of the Tour (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.21.15

Hyper-awareness and second-guessing are the absolute death of joie de vivre; when we scrutinize every thought and deed, the inevitable results are despair and utter paralysis.

Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg, left) initially assumes that celebrated
author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) is delighted by book tours ... because that's
the way he (Lipsky) would react to such acclaim. But Wallace is a different soul entirely,
and landing in Minneapolis for yet another mindless public appearance is far from his
idea of fun.
This is one of several lessons to be learned from The End of the Tour, a heartfelt, thoughtfully engaging depiction of writers, the writing process and the price of fame. The film is anchored by the subtle, richly nuanced performances of its two stars: most particularly Jason Segel, demonstrating a level of acting intensity that will surprise viewers who know him solely for overly broad comedies such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement and television’s How I Met  Your Mother.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies’ screenplay is drawn from an actual event: the five-day “brief encounter” that Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent with wunderkind author David Foster Wallace (Segel) in 1996, while shadowing the conclusion of the latter’s book tour for his highly celebrated epic novel, Infinite Jest. Wallace did not wear celebrity well; Lipsky, too much in awe of a man whose talent and acclaim he coveted, likely was a poor choice for the assignment.

And yet, at the same time, he probably was the best choice. Such are the tantalizing ironies that dance throughout Margulies’ piquant script, which is based on Lipsky’s own best-selling memoir of this meeting, 2010’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.

Although director James Ponsoldt’s intimate drama focuses on the interactions between these two men, as Lipsky and his ubiquitous tape recorder intrusively chronicle even the most trivial aspects of Wallace’s behavior — such as when he discards the pickle from a fast-food hamburger — this isn’t strictly a talking-heads stage experience such as 1981’s My Dinner with Andre. Sidebar characters pop into this narrative, mostly to catalyze the intensity of subsequent conversations, but also to serve as physical examples of the philosophical issues with which Wallace constantly grapples.

That said, this is a dialogue-heavy film, replete with plain-vanilla two-shots. That shouldn’t be read as an indictment; debate is dull only if the participants — and their topics — are boring. That absolutely isn’t true here; as also was the case with My Dinner with Andre, watching this film is like eavesdropping on truly fascinating people.

Contrasting people, at that. Segel’s Wallace, although constantly laboring beneath a cloud of despair so tangible that we sometimes seem to see it, nonetheless tries, at all times, to articulate his feelings and impressions with a candor that Jesse Eisenberg’s Lipsky couldn’t manage if his life depended on it.

American Ultra: In their dreams

American Ultra (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity, drug use and strong bloody violence

By Derrick Bang

I knew we were in trouble, before this movie even started.

Allow me to explain:

After an unfortunate encounter with some homicidal maniacs, Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) and
Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) are apprehended by the local law. Sadly, small-town cops won't
be much good in the melees that are about to follow...
Frequent filmgoers will have noticed, since time immemorial, that the studio logo always is the first thing on the screen. Some of the former titans have vanished over the years, but the familiar logos for 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures — to cite just a few — remain ubiquitous.

During the past few decades, however, we’ve been subjected to pre-movie “logo creep,” first due to an ever-expanding roster of so-called mini-studios — Roadside Attractions, Lionsgate, Focus Features and A24 leap to mind, among many others — and, not to be outdone, director/actor production companies (Tom Hanks’ Playtone, James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott’s Scott Free, Chris Columbus’ 1492 Pictures and Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison, to cite just a few).

Each one has its own logo, all of which get displayed — in some contractually determined hierarchy — before a movie begins. And then, just to stroke egos even further, the same companies are cited at the top of the opening credits. (Warner Bros. and Roadside Attractions present ... a BBC Films production ... of a Happy Madison film ... or whatever.)

All of which has led sage filmgoers to two observations:

1) The quality of a film often is inversely related to the number of pre-credits logos; and

2) The quality of said logos absolutely determines the merit of the film in question.

In other words, crappy logos = crappy film.

American Ultra is preceded by four logos, two for companies I’d never before encountered, both of said logos apparently created by 4-year-olds. At which point I turned to Constant Companion and muttered, sotto voce, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Actually, this film’s entire attribution chain is much, much worse, and worth repeating, in sum:

“Lionsgate presents / Palmstar Media Capital and Kevin Frankers present / in association with FilmNation Entertainment, a Likely Story / PalmStar Entertainment / Circle of Confusion production in association with Merced Media Partners / Tadmore Entertainment / The Bridge Finance Company AG, a Nima Nourizadeh film.”

Circle of confusion, indeed.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: Vintage spyjinks

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence, suggestive content and partial nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.14.15

Having so successfully re-imagined the sleuthing Sherlock Holmes and his late 19th century London surroundings, director Guy Ritchie has plunged forward half a century and change, in order to replicate the Cold War-era intrigue of classic 1960s spy flicks.

Having outwitted one set of enemies, Napoleon (Henry Cavill, left) and Illya (Armie Hammer)
cautiously check out the scene, in case other adversaries are waiting to ambush them.
Since this is an action-oriented spy thriller, you can bet the answer will be yes...
The engaging result isn’t merely set in the twisty, double-crossing world of Iron Curtain espionage; it even looks and feels like a movie made in the 1960s, thanks to the meticulous efforts of cinematographer John Mathieson, production designer Oliver Scholl, costume designer Joanna Johnston — you have to love how she dresses Alicia Vikander — and even composer Daniel Pemberton.

But let’s be clear: This film has absolutely nothing to do with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Scripters Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, Jeff Kleeman and Davis C. Wilson may have borrowed a couple of iconic character names — Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin — but the whole elaborate U.N.C.L.E. mythos has been abandoned and/or ignored.

Ritchie’s film feels much more like a blend of early Sean Connery James Bond adventures and Michael Caine’s first two Harry Palmer spy thrillers (The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin). Mind you, that’s not a bad thing ... but if Ritchie & Co. wanted to mimic a 1960s spy film, why not invent their own characters?

Messing about with a beloved TV franchise seems a risky proposition either way: Longtime fans are guaranteed to be disappointed — or even irritated — while younger viewers won’t have the faintest idea who these guys are anyway. So ... what’s the point?

This cranky rant aside, Ritchie definitely has the formula down: the all-important blend of nimble spycraft, inventively staged fisticuffs, mildly audacious action sequences and just the right dollop of bone-dry humor (shaken, not stirred). The resulting tongue-in-cheek thriller is a bit lethargic at times — editor James Herbert could (and should) have tightened some of the many talking-heads interludes — but it’s otherwise a sleek and colorful blast from the cinematic past.

The action takes place in 1963, and begins as CIA agent Solo (Henry Cavill) is sent into East Berlin to extract Gaby Teller (Vikander), the long-estranged daughter of Dr. Udo Teller, once Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist. The hope is that Gaby will lead Napoleon to her father, whose wartime research into uranium enrichment has become highly dangerous, in an unstable world where the United States and Soviet Union are locked in an anxious, high-stakes game of chicken over nuclear arms supremacy.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Shaun the Sheep: Woolly bully!

Shaun the Sheep (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Needlessly rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.7.15

I’ve eagerly awaited this film since it was announced in early 2013, and it lives up to every expectation.

Cute, clever, whimsical, laugh-out-loud funny and even socially conscious. Couldn’t ask for more.

With a vengeful animal control officer hot on their heels, our heroes — from left, Shaun,
Slip and Bitzer — make a break for freedom. But that still leaves the bigger problem:
where to find the kindly farmer who is similarly lost in the big city?
Shaun the Sheep comes from the claymation wizards at England’s Aardman Animation, best known for Wallace & Gromit’s various adventures. Indeed, Shaun was introduced in 1995’s Academy Award-winning W&G short, A Close Shave, where character actor Peter Sallis (the longtime voice of Wallace) punningly pronounced the name as “Shorn.”

Shaun was granted his own British TV series in early 2007, but he didn’t travel to this side of the pond for a few more years. (Our household became early fans, thanks to a friend and some, ah, illicit Internet activity.) Shaun is much better known on these shores today, thanks to the perceptive folks at the Disney Channel.

Heavens, the impish little sheep even maintains an active social media presence, and has more than 5 million Facebook friends. Not ba-a-a-a-ad at all...

Ironically, Shaun may be overtaking Wallace & Gromit in terms of popularity, having thus far starred in 166 seven-minute shorts (assuming my count is correct). And therein lay the potential concern, for Shaun fans throughout the world: Could that brief, dialog-free format — so perfect in every respect — translate successfully to an 85-minute big-screen feature?

Worry not. The transition has been seamless.

Aside from its entertainment value, this feature-length “Shaun” is impressive in several other respects. The engaging storyline unfolds without any dialog; even when human characters converse, it’s solely in (deliberately amusing) unintelligible mumbles. And yet the plot is always comprehensible, with solid character development and all sorts of droll sidebar mischief. (The overly precocious Shaun, with a tendency to leap into half-baked schemes, always gets into trouble.)

The result, then, is a de facto silent movie, albeit one with marvelous sound effects and a superlative score from composer Ilan Eshkeri. He has managed a herculean feat, because the music essentially never stops. Much the way Howard Shore orchestrated full-blown symphonies for his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit scores, Eshkeri has produced a similarly ambitious musical portrait that augments, counterpoints and even carries the action, from scene to scene.

And yes, folks, you’ll detect underscore snatches of Shaun’s theme song, most famously sung by Vic Reeves, in its original pop hoe-down format. My only complaint is that this film never employs that foot-stompin’ version of the song, instead scrolling the closing credits to an updated, rap-inflected version by the pop duo Rizzle Kicks. (It’s cute, but it ain’t the same. So sue me.)

Ricki and the Flash: Rock on!

Ricki and the Flash (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, sexuality, brief profanity and mild drug content

By Derrick Bang

I haven’t been this nervous about a wedding toast since the aggressively unstable Anne Hathaway seized the microphone, in 2008’s Rachel Getting Married.

Come to think of it, that film also was directed by Jonathan Demme. He must have a thing about weddings...

Julie (Mamie Gummer, far left), Ricki (Meryl Streep) and Pete (Kevin Kline) chortle over
fading photographs and other memorabilia from long-ago times, when they still lived
together as an actual family.
Meryl Streep’s Ricki Rendazzo isn’t unstable, but she’s a social misfit and family pariah in every other respect: a free spirit who, decades earlier, abandoned a husband and three children — Julie, Joshua and Daniel — in order to pursue a rock ’n’ roll career in sunny California. Now reduced to leading the house band at a hole-in-the-wall San Fernando bar dubbed the Salt Well, Ricki’s few faithful fans number bar flies and struggling blue-collar regulars who show up nightly to stave off lives of (we assume) quiet desperation.

But one thing: an important thing. Ricki truly can rock, as proven each evening, when she and her band cover popular power anthems such as “American Girl,” “Wooly Bully” and “Keep Playing that Rock ’n’ Roll.” Which begs an obvious question: Is there anything Streep can’t do? Because yes, that’s her own voice and bad-ass self, and she also learned enough rhythm guitar licks to look credible on camera.

Ricki and the Flash represents a crowd-pleasing comeback for scripter Diablo Cody, who stalled after winning that well-deserved Academy Award for 2007’s Juno. The immediate follow-ups — Jennifer’s Body and Young Adult — were disappointing, to say the least; happily, Cody once again has found her groove. This new dramedy has the tart dialogue, fractured family dynamics and sly social observations that made Juno so beguiling.

And if Ricki occasionally feels like a rock-inflected Hollywood fairy tale, it’s hard to complain when such a stellar cast handles the material with sharp-edged aplomb.

Ricki’s nightly sessions at the Salt Well don’t pay the rent; by day, she struggles to maintain a sunny smile while selling overpriced gourmet foods as a cashier at Goodwill, an upscale, Whole Foods-ish supermarket where all employees are expected to maintain pod people-style grins. (Wish I could credit the actor who does so well in his tiny role as Ricki’s micro-managing boss, but — alas — the press notes aren’t that complete.)

Even with the two gigs, Ricki barely makes ends meet. Sadder still, her off-stage self-esteem is so low that she can’t even acknowledge the sincere romantic overtures coming her way from Greg, the band’s lead guitarist (rock legend Rick Springfield, looking very fine). She can’t quite make the “L” word pass between her lips.

Then, unexpected catastrophe: Ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) calls from Indianapolis, where he lives in a hilariously ostentatious mansion with second wife Maureen (Audra McDonald). Pete is worried because Julie has returned home, completely unhinged, after being dumped unexpectedly by her husband. Bewildered but also oddly flattered by the call — Streep fine-tunes this wealth of emotions with such subtle skill — Ricki responds to vestiges of maternal instinct and hops a plane.

Rarely, upon her arrival, has a fish been so far removed from water.

Irrational Man: The perfect crime?

Irrational Man (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

Lively philosophical discussions can be vicarious fun, but — as this film’s title character frequently reminds us — the theories of Sartre, Nietzsche and Kant don’t hold sway in the real world of blood, sweat and tears.

And when somebody does take such concepts to heart ... well, that can be a dangerous thing indeed.

Despite gentle admonitions from Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), who is trying to be the
responsible adult, Jill (Emma Stone) allows herself to fall in love with him. And, truth be
told, Abe probably doesn't mind that much...
Woody Allen’s newest dramedy is another of his occasional musings on crime and punishment — with that deliberate nod to Dostoyevsky — to be placed on a shelf alongside 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and 2005’s Match Point. In each case, we’re confronted with a character who tries to argue himself into a “just” crime ... whereupon, as viewers, we’re forced to confront how subsequent events challenge our own comfort zone.

It’s an unsettling notion, because we prefer our murderers to be easily identifiable lunatics along the lines of Charles Manson or Robert Pickton. No surprise, then, that Agatha Christie based her entire mystery career on the opposite notion: that casual killers likely live among us, cheerfully interacting with friends and neighbors on a regular basis.

But the bad guys and gals always get caught, in a Christie novel. Not necessarily so in real life, or in a Woody Allen film, where chance and circumstance might allow somebody to get away with murder. A sobering thought, and even more so Allen’s directorial approach makes things so light and droll.

Philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), emotionally damaged and forever awash in single-malt scotch, has accepted a summer session post at Braylin, a small East Coast college. He drags along a cloud of dark despair like a puppy on a leash, barely able to muster the will to show up for each day’s classes.

He’s a shattered idealist: a former political activist and impassioned deep thinker, who traveled the world and tried to help victims in disaster zones ... only to conclude that, for all his efforts, nothing changed. People continue to suffer and die; evil governments and corporations continue to aid and abet such misery. So what’s the point?

There’s also something mildly troubling, even dangerous, about Abe. This isn’t a jovial, rumpled university rascal along the lines of Michael Douglas’ Grady Tripp, in the 2000 adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. Abe radiates anxiety like musk; we’re hardly surprised when, at a party, he impulsively seizes a pistol and horrifies everybody by spinning the chamber and playing Russian roulette with himself.

Fantastic Four: Doomed

Fantastic Four (2015) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang

When some movies go wrong, they really go wrong.

Given the care with which the Marvel Comics Group has shepherded recent projects to the big screen, I’m amazed they ever let this atrocious mess out of the box. Based on this evidence, Josh Trank shouldn’t be allowed to direct a small-town theater production, let alone helm a big-budget superhero epic. He hasn’t the faintest idea how to handle actors, maintain a consistent tone, or even execute smooth scene transitions.

Reed (Miles Teller) and Sue (Kate Mara), obviously having no idea how to approach their
next scene, wait in vain for directorial guidance. It ain't gonna happen, now or at any other
point during this misbegotten superhero adventure.
Trank apparently got this assignment as a result of his only previous feature credit: 2012’s over-praised Chronicle. For a fleeting moment, apparently perceived as the Next Best Thing in sci-fi cinema, he even was assigned to direct the next Star Wars film (following this December’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens). Based either on early footage from this inept handling of Fantastic Four, or reports of his behavior while making this film — the media spotlight hasn’t been kind — Trank’s relationship with the Star Wars franchise was abruptly severed.

Smartest decision George Lucas ever made.

This re-boot of Marvel Comics’ original superhero family — the FF debuted in November 1961, almost a year ahead of Spider-Man’s launch in August 1962 — is even worse than the two earlier efforts, back in 2005 and ’07. And, mind you, that means impressively bad, because those two attempts were quite disappointing.

In fairness, Trank doesn’t deserve the sole blame. He shares scripting credit with Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater; the former has a vastly superior résumé as both writer and producer, but the latter’s sole previous credit is the completely awful Lazarus Effect, which was unleashed to unsuspecting viewers earlier this year.

Clearly, Kinberg’s efforts weren’t enough to salvage the clumsy, sloppy input from Trank and Slater.

More than anything else, this Fantastic Four resembles the cornball sci-fi TV shows of the 1950s — Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, Captain Video and His Video Rangers, and a few others — with their clunky dialogue, laughably wooden actors and amazingly silly storylines. Yes, Trank’s new film benefits from special effects that those old shows could only dream of, but that’s meaningless these days, when even stinkers can boast awesome visuals.

Frankly, Trank & Co. have ruined the Fantastic Four. The previous two films left Marvel’s “first family” on life support, but this one puts the final nail in the coffin. And that’s truly a shame, because the FF have an even richer comic book history than Spider-Man or the X-Men.